If Australia want to become a respected middle power diplomatic force, they should think about who they are hanging with. I attend many international meetings and frequently observe the Australian delegation taking their orders from the US delegation.

Whenever blocks, sticky questions, differences of opinions over language or bracketed text come up, one or more of the Australian delegates walks over to the US table and asks for instructions. They also meet them in corridors, behind the meeting rooms and near the toilets to exchange bits of paper and get their text instructions.

Interventions from the Australian delegation are eerily similar to the  preceding intervention from the US delegate and barring the very, very odd exception, Australians are not known to disagree publicly with them. This is also obvious to other delegations who are astonished that Australian officials can’t seem to think for themselves and seem to gang up with the US to erode consensus time and again.

The issue is complicated by the US’s starring role as an international pariah of foreign policy, using multiple methods to put a brake on multilateralism. They constantly intervene to stop decisions being taken, to weaken text to meaningless waffle, to take out time-lines and remove any targets. To add insult to injury, the US will often refuse to sign on to the final text they have bargained down to platitudinous twaddle.

And it isn’t just the Government who need to stretch their horizons. The media needs to think carefully about its role as well.

Australian politicians are all too aware that if they go to an international meeting, apart from long flights, jetlag, numerous documents, complex issues to master, difficult decisions and late night negotiations, they will face accusations of rorting the public purse and being on a junket if they go anywhere. A cheap kick for a days news might be gratuitous fun but it is a powerful force against engagement.

To be accepted as a leading foreign middle power is to work in a global environment where global negotiations happen at high level and domestic, regional and global interests need to be carefully weighed. If the media treated this seriously and accepted the idea of Australia playing a serious role in an ever more globalised world, they should accept that the government send senior delegations overseas instead of low ranking officials. Rather than taking an easy kick at ministers for overseas travel, the media should accept that ministries are more confident to engage at higher levels and can offer Australian decision making and a whole-of-government or whole-of-cabinet style level of thinking.

Speaking of thinking, a third way to improve engagement is to think from a global level. Treaties are repeatedly left unratified or unsigned with the excuse that Australia isn’t in that region, or Australia doesn’t share a border, or that isn’t an issue in Australia. The world is facing increased conflict, migration, climate, financial and security threats at present and the impacts will range across a number of policy areas. Repeatedly G77 is cross linking and cross trading work out of previously defined sectoral policy boxes.

These days when the west wants give in terms of development, corruption, climate or security, developing countries put that conversation behind their priority topics such as economic growth, trade, poverty, foreign aid and health. Australia could help by moving from a narrow minded, closed border approach to a more collaborative, cross cutting and helpful approach.

I wholeheartedly agree with Rudd that Australia could be hugely influential, and Kyoto was a good step, but first he has to shake the me-too mentality which is all too obvious at meetings and has shaped our foreign policy for far too long. He could also try dignifying us by sending Ministers along to more meetings, rather than leaving our international reputation to the whims of minor officials in the US State department.

Peter Fray

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Peter Fray
Editor-in-chief of Crikey